The essence of Pat Riley came in a simple answer Monday. People always wonder what he does, how he leads, and what this idea of “Heat Culture” means, if anything.
Riley sat in a blue shirt for his annual post-mortem on the Miami Heat season. Some things are a given in this summer ritual. He’s asked each year about retiring and, at 77, said, “I have an obligation to finish this build.”
He’s asked about a big trade — of getting that whale — and he said, “Do we need another [star]? If there’s one out here, throw him to me.”
Riley also praised this season, but still suffered from that Game 7 loss to Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals.
“The dragon hasn’t actually left my body from that loss,” he said. “I saw, stunned. I was stunned. I was frustrated. I was angry. I’m working past that.”
All that’s who Riley is, but not the essence I’m talking about. That came in a simple answer when asked about various players and possibilities for next season.
He was asked about Tyler Herro’s stated desire to start. There are a dozen ways to answer that, from a neutral, “I’d be disappointed if he didn’t want that,” to an agreeing, “Tyler had a great year and has a great future with us.”
Here’s how Riley answered it:
“If he wants to start, go earn it,” he said.
Leadership starts with simple statements like that. You want to know how to set a team’s tone? How to define an organization’s culture?
Herro, the reigning NBA Sixth Man of the Year, is 22. He can’t be the one dictating terms, Riley was demanding but not demeaning. He pointed to Herro’s 20.7-point scoring average as a good step, but …
“I don’t think he’s here yet as a full-time complete player,” Riley said. “He can score on floaters, pull-up [3-pointers]. The next step for him, if you want to win a championship and you want to be a starter, you really have to become a two-way player today.
“You have to improve certain areas of your game. We all know teams will put a target on Tyler because [of his defense]. I saw him improve on defense this year. He [has] great feet, quick feet. He just needs to get stronger, put on 10 pounds of muscle mass.
“As far as being a starter, we will see in October. Come to training camp and win it. It’s something you earn. Sometimes it’s that easy.”
Sometimes you find what an organization stands for in simple questions, too. Riley wasn’t done there. He was now moving on to the importance of defensive play — and lack of excuses.
“We hang our hat on that,” he said. “I’m not going to say we lost a game because we had some horrendous 3-point shooting or someone missed a [3-point attempt]. If you don’t defend, if you don’t guard in transition, if you don’t defend by rebound, by taking charges and getting loose balls, then you’re always going to blame it on shooting.”
There, in a couple of minutes, Riley reminded you what his organization is built on, what expectations are for his players. Lots of teams think words don’t really matter. Riley’s career says they do.
“No rebounds, no rings,” he told his Los Angeles Lakers.” “Fifteen strong,” he defined his first Heat championship team. “Play eight, use seven, trust six,” he explained his playoff coaching idea.
Now he told Herro in simple terms to go work for what he wants. Coach Erik Spoelstra does the heavy lifting, day to day, and if there’s no big trade coming this summer you see how they’ll try to take the next step.
Spoelstra and his staff will develop their players. He said just last week they know what they’re doing in this department. They showed it this year, too.
Look at an undrafted, small-salaried player they developed in Max Strus. He was one of the great finds this season. The Heat weren’t married to playing Duncan Robinson, who they paid $16.9 million this year, over Strus, who earned $1.8 million.
Bam Adebayo keeps taking steps each year. Strus and Gabe Vincent were uncovered this year. Herro is improving. There’s the take-a-breath advice to everyone thinking the Heat hit their limit this year without a big trade. Look at how they develop players. Listen, too, as they talk to them.
Herro wants to start?
Beat out Strus.
Earn it, Riley said, showing his essence and once again defining what his organization’s culture stands for.